I have read romantic fiction for decades and I remember when authors began including the use of condoms in love scenes. It was during the rise of the AIDS epidemic (circa mid-1980s) and suddenly it was expected for the main characters in a romance book to practice safe sex.
Did the demand originate from the authors, publishers or readers?
It’s hard to say. Some readers and writers felt that the inclusion of condoms, and why they were needed, ruined the fantasy. A few felt it was up to the reader’s imagination if safe sex was practiced. However, many thought the author was irresponsible if she didn’t show HIV and AIDS prevention.
These days, if the hero and heroine don’t use a condom, chances are there’ll be an unintended pregnancy later in the story.
If the characters keep having unprotected sex with no consequences, readers and reviewers often have something to say about the oversight.
Condoms, or the lack of them, can also interfere with the romance. The couple could finally fall into bed but it’s so spontaneous that they don’t have condoms. The hero and heroine refrain from sexual intercourse and the anticipation continues to build.
The decision to do away with condoms can also be symbolic and indicate the status of the romantic relationship. Perhaps the hero and heroine are exclusive and they stop using condoms as a show of commitment and monogamy.
So while condoms in romance novels represent a milestone in a relationship as well as acknowledge the possibility of sexually transmitted infections, this method of safe sex has an unlikely side effect. Because condoms are mentioned in modern romance novels, other forms of pregnancy prevention are rarely discussed.
Is that a disservice to the reader, when romance novels are supposed to reflect a woman’s life?
I recently read a category romance novel in which the heroine, after having unprotected sex with the hero, decides to get emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill.)
This jolted me out of the story—but not for the reason you’d think. I have read hundreds of contemporary romance books for decades. They often show the worry and waiting for pregnancy test results after broken condoms, failed condoms and no condoms. But this was the first time I’ve seen emergency contraception mentioned (and used!) in a romance novel.
Considering that nearly one in four sexually experienced women aged 20-24 have used emergency contraception, why am I just now seeing this form of pregnancy prevention in romance novels?
The only birth control shown in romantic fiction are condoms and oral contraceptives (frequently just referred to as the Pill). No patch, shot or ring. No implant, IUD or tubal ligation. It’s as if any other barrier, reversible or permanent method doesn’t exist.
And while there’s an expectation for the hero to have a condom available, there’s a double standard for the heroine. If the heroine is on the Pill, it’s common to explain that she only has the prescription to regulate her menstrual cycle.
Shouldn’t romance heroines be prepared for a sexual relationship?
Maybe not. I read a romance novel that was published a few years ago in which the heroine wasn’t on the Pill. The hero decided that meant she was a “good girl”.
There’s too much to unpack in that problematic assumption, so I won’t dismantle it right now. But I will point out that if a romance hero is expected to use preventative measures, then a romance heroine should not be criticized for the same action.
A romance heroine should not be shamed because she’s taking care of herself. No one should be judged for thinking about reproductive health.
Reproductive and sexual health issues are not part of romantic fiction unless the heroine is diagnosed infertile.
And, by some miracle, she often becomes pregnant by the end of the book.
This is probably why Hans-Georg Betz wrote his Fair Observer article “Do Romance Novels Offer an Outdated Model of Feminism?” Betz argues that contemporary romance fiction promotes “a traditional understanding of a woman’s role in society” and that the heroine’s ultimate destiny seems to be motherhood.
I’m not sure about that conclusion, but I understand his argument. A baby is frequently included in the happily-ever-after because it represents celebration and strengthened bonds between the hero and heroine. However, this symbolism is not always encouraged. Many readers, especially those who have experienced pregnancy loss, believe a baby is not a required element in the happily-ever-after.
Nothing impacts a woman’s health, financial stability and future as much as motherhood, and yet, many romance heroines are not proactive when it comes to birth control. And when a romance heroine is faced with an unintended pregnancy, she doesn’t consider all her options.
Why is this? The Sydney Morning Herald reports “books that mention abortion may not get published in the US because of the power of the Bible belt to boycott such titles and their publishers.”
Therefore, the reproductive politics in the United States strongly influences the romance fiction that is read around the world.
And the category romance novel I read that mentioned the emergency contraception? (I know you all were wondering.) The author of the book is Canadian and the book was first published in the United Kingdom. Perhaps emergency contraception is not up for debate in these countries. The morning-after pill is still controversial among Americans and there’s restricted access to it in parts of the United States.
American authors might write romance novels with explicit taboo sex, but they’re overly cautious to add any details about contraception. I think it’s going to be up to the international authors and editorial teams to freely discuss birth control in love stories. The writers in the USA are not up to the task.
Do romance authors have a responsibility to mention contraception in their stories?
Pregnancy prevention should not be ignored in today’s romantic fiction. Contraception doesn’t have to dominate the story, but since reproductive and sexual health is a vital part of a woman’s life, the topics should be addressed without judgment, politics or censorship.
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